Single Mothers in Japan: Struggling with Poverty and Taboos

Tokyo, Japan – In the hustle and bustle of Japan’s capital city, there is a group of women who work tirelessly, sacrificing sleep and struggling to balance their responsibilities as caregivers and homemakers. These single mothers, trapped in a cycle of poverty, have become the focal point of the award-winning documentary film “The Ones Left Behind”. Australian filmmaker Rionne McAvoy sheds light on their stories, intertwining interviews with the women themselves and experts in the field, offering a glimpse into a side of Japanese culture that often goes unnoticed.

The film’s title, “The Ones Left Behind,” serves as a poignant reminder of how society has neglected these women and their children. McAvoy believes that this is an unspoken topic in Japan, shrouded in taboo. “Single mothers and their children have really been left behind in society,” he asserts. The film features one woman who labors from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., earning a mere 200,000 yen ($1,350) per month. Another woman, Tomiko Nakayama, solemnly admits, “I have to do everything on my own.”

Japan, a country known for its affluence, paradoxically has one of the highest rates of child poverty among OECD nations, with one in every seven children living below the poverty line. Single-parent households are particularly vulnerable, with approximately half living in poverty. The prevailing Japanese culture favors full-time male employees, leading to lower wages and diminished benefits for women, even when they work equally long hours.

The film poignantly illustrates the devastating impact of poverty on these single mothers and their children. One mother tearfully recalls how her child stopped asking her to accompany them on school events, understanding that her mother was too preoccupied to attend. Yet, in true Japanese fashion, many women silently endure their hardships, too ashamed to seek help, maintaining a facade of strength in public while privately struggling.

“The Ones Left Behind” received critical acclaim, winning the Best Documentary award at the Miyakojima Charity International Film Festival and earning selection at the Yokohama International Film Festival. However, despite repeated assurances from the Japanese government to provide financial aid to families with children, progress has been sluggish. Akihiko Kato, a professor at Meiji University featured in the film, highlights the lack of a child support system that can compel fathers to contribute. As a result, Japan’s birth rate has plummeted from 1.2 million births in 2000 to below 700,000 in recent years.

Traditionally, extended family members and neighbors played a crucial role in caring for children in Japan. However, in today’s nuclear family structure, single-parent households often struggle alone without support. Yanfei Zhou, a social science professor at Japan Women’s University, warns of the sobering consequences for these children. The wealth gap is widening, leaving them destined to inherit a cycle of poverty.

McAvoy, driven by a fascination with the struggles of the underclass and those who go unheard, plans to delve into a new project. His next film will shed light on the alarming issue of youth suicides in Japan. As an outsider, he brings a fresh perspective to storytelling without bias, a platform to amplify the cries for help that often go unnoticed in society.

In a society where women are expected to assume traditional roles, these single mothers face immense challenges in carving out a better future for themselves and their children. As the documentary “The Ones Left Behind” unveils the stories behind closed doors, it serves as a reminder of the urgent need for societal recognition and support for these marginalized individuals.